Beyond the topics of my research proper, my thought process is influenced by a number of other ideas. While not fully introduced into my research, these ideas influence that research as well as providing a starting point for more properly developed ideas.
Here you may find concepts ranging from photography, transport, film criticism, literature, fine art, and even muscle cars. This is, more than anything else, a place for me to present ideas that are not quite ready and see how others receive them.
Note: This is a post that I had written for the Social Informatics Blog.
I have always enjoyed fixing computers. This is not because of the challenges that are presented by the process of computer repair (although there is a certain amount of enjoyment to be found there as well) but because it is interesting to hear how people feel about their computers both in terms of their normal functioning and their malfunctioning. There seemed to be a near-infinite number of ways that people had come up with to make the functioning (or malfunctioning) of these machines make sense. I came to think of these little quirky approaches to grappling with the black box of computational devices as little rituals. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner describes rituals as symbolic actions, grouping them alongside other forms of symbolic action such as social drama and metaphor (4). However, I did not have a concrete definition of what a technological ritual was; I just knew it when I saw it.
Fundamental to these is the idea that rituals are activities that occur in the material world, but have some sort of importance beyond their material qualities. Metaphor has become an important to aid users in understanding the functioning of the otherwise complex functioning of digital devices (e.g. 1). Digital technology also has its share of social drama: Facebook relationship status being one way to solidify a romantic engagement between two people. Even ritual itself has been spoken of in the context of computation. One study has examined how “ritualized interactions often play a major role in the performance and experience of the art or performance work,” (2) while another has looked at how ritual activities could be used to make virtual characters seem more like real characters (3). However, art performances hold a kind of lofty ambition and a focus on making virtual characters have rituals focuses on representing people to make them easier to interact with. I wonder how looking at the more everyday practices of people as they relate with technology could lead to a better understanding of both people and the technology they use. As an example of how to look at technological interactions in terms of ritual, I point to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.
It is common to hear people complain about having too much email. It takes a lot of time to sort through all of one’s messages, it causes problems with missed communication, and it can make people feel overwhelmed with the amount of information they are receiving. As an answer to this problem, Merlin Mann describes Inbox Zero (http://inboxzero.com/) , a way of handling email overload. At one level, this is a prescription of simple actions of sorting, removing and addressing the demands presented in a person’s inbox. However, it is also a set of small actions that in combination hold a certain higher personal and social value. The empty inbox described by the processes name not only reduces distractions when new email comes in, it also gives a symbol of technological well-adjustment. It is social in the sense that the person’s relations to others are kept in check. The material of Inbox Zero is an empty in box, it’s meaning is control of technology in a way that also incorporates interactions with other people.
This idea of ritual, as it pertains to technology, is still quite rough. However, as HCI has focused more on experiences and the designing thereof, the kind of duality of meaning that comes from ritual acts may prove to be a valuable way of understanding the relationships between the form and function of artifacts and the meanings that people ascribe to them. Looking at interactions as rituals may point to better understandings of digital artifacts and the people who interact with them.
 Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 13(4), 490-530.
 Loke, L., Khut, G. P., & Kocaballi, A. B. (2012, June). Bodily experience and imagination: designing ritual interactions for participatory live-art contexts. InProceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 779-788). ACM.
 Mascarenhas, S., Dias, J., Afonso, N., Enz, S., & Paiva, A. (2009, May). Using rituals to express cultural differences in synthetic characters. InProceedings of The 8th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (Vol. 1).
 Turner, V. W. (1975). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Cornell University Press.
Note: This is a post that I had written for the Social Informatics Blog.
Designers tend to approach ideas from a certain bias, which may require some explanation. While design is focused on the process of creating artifacts, it is rarely a straightforward endeavor. Of particular importance is the accountability that comes from creating a new artifact, the ethics of design so to speak. In the most general and common sense, the impetus is to solve a problem, and the solution is assessed on the basis of its efficacy. This can be thought of as the function of a particular design – what it does as a means of resolving a problem. The designer, in the ideal circumstance, builds that function into the artifact. In addition to this functional aspect, there is also a process of changing and reframing problems [see Nelson for more clarity on this]. This procedurecarries with it yet another aspect of evaluation– the framing of the problem is judged on the basis of how well it captures some aspect previously unconsidered that, nonetheless, is integral to resolving the problem. To put this all more simply, a design can fail procedurally due to improper problem framing, regardless of how well the it functions, or it can fail functionally, regardless of how well the procedure of framing the problem goes. The results of either of these failings have implications for the designer. A failing of functionality indicts the designer on charges of poor craftsmanship, while a failure of procedure points to general ineptitude. The inverse is equally true – merit is given for functional and novel approaches.
While there are a number of good and bad designs in the world, this topic has been covered considerably, and so the nature of such evaluation will not be addressed here. The proceeding is presented with the hopes of identifying how a designer is ethically tied to the success or failure of an artifact. If this is taken as true, then what happens in the grey areas? If two ends of the spectrum refer back to the designer, is it not reasonable that the middle ground has a similar effect? The situation above becomes socially relevant when one considers Winner’s argument that artifacts can have politics [Winner]. Those politics become built into the artifact both procedurally and functionally; both with implications for the designer. In the case of Winner’s examples, Moses’s bridges are problematic due to their function - their function is limited by the way they were made. Alternately, the tomato harvester suffers from a procedural issue – namely that the framing of the problem showed greater concern for efficiency and cost-effectiveness than the implications of mechanization with economical and ecological consequences. In both cases, Winner’s description seems to fit well within a model of accountability as prescribed by design. But lets suppose a situation where the decisions are not quite so clear. As an example of such a situation, consider this Pennsylvania polling station.
In a Philadelphia polling station in the 2012 election, one of the booths had a problem regarding candidate selection. When the space on the screen occupied by Barak Obama’s name was clicked, the box for Mitt Romney would be checked.
Now, in a situation similar to Moses’s bridges it could be imagined that this machine was designed with the specific intent of favoring a specific candidate. This would be a functional aspect, in that the artifact’s functioning had a specific bias. But let us suppose that the person who posted this video’s first inclination (from going into “troubleshoot mode”) is correct and the problem is a malfunction rather than a deliberate decision. It seems reasonable that a touchscreen could break, particularly if used repeatedly (as would be the case of a polling station). Then it would seem that the accountability would fall upon the individual who chose that particular touch screen, making it procedural – rooted in a concern of cost over functional robustness. This need not imply any political orientation with regards to Romney and Obama, but it certainly represents a political statement nonetheless. However, suppose that such was not the case. Suppose, rather, that the reduced size of one option’s button was the result of a contextual issue. A power surge, a component broken during shipping, or any number of events that had happened to that specific machine could be at fault. In such a case, what would be the ethical standing of the designer? Would the complexities of the context caused a newly emergent political stance without an actor behind it, or is there an implication at the level of deciding to use such a machine in the first place?
If that sounds somewhat far-fetched, consider the 2010 “Flash Crash.” Sommerville et al. describes how a $4.1 billion block sale that was “executed with uncommon urgency” resulted in a “complex pattern of interactions between high-frequency algorithmic trading systems… that buy and sell blocks of financial instruments on incredibly short timescales” [Sommerville]. The systems employed had functioned together well, until that context had arisen. But when that context DID arise, roughly $800 billion disappeared [ibid]. As in the final hypothetical situation regarding the voting booth, it becomes difficult to consider the ethical position of the designer(s). Both describe systems of systems (the algorithms in the market and the technological parts of the voting machine). Both also describe situations where the final result is emergent, as opposed to a situation that is deliberately created. Risatti makes a distinction between function, and emergent application: use (Risatti). It would seem that these issues fall more under latter than the former, and by virtue of the fact that use is not constructed into the artifact in the way that function is, that the designer is somewhat free from blame. After all, designers cannot be expected to be capable of predicting the future, can they?
As a somewhat unsettling conclusion to this case study, what happens when the model of accountability that is defined by function and procedure becomes less common? It is becoming more difficult to consider any one given technology in isolation. Phones sync to computers that sync to bank accounts; information is stored to a cloud where multiple people, from multiple devices, can access it. Systems of technology are moving towards systems of systems of technology. As this increases, the chances for emergence also increase. Buried in this complex scenario is a notion that is as lucid and cutting as what Winner expresses: if artifacts have politics, do systems have politics as well? It seems evident that the answer is a resounding “yes.” However, that answer only leads to a more worrisome question. If systems have politics, who is accountable for those politics?
Nelson, H. and Stolterman, E. (2012) The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredicatble World. 2nd ed. MIT Press.
Winner, L. (1986) Do Artifacts Have Politics? The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. U. Chicago Press: 19-39.
Sommerville, I. Cliff, D., Calinescu, R., Keen, J., Kelly, T., Kwiatkowska, M., McDermid, J., and Paige, R. (2012) Large-Scale Complex IT Systems, Communicatons of the ACM 55(7): 71-77.
Risatti, H. (2007) A Theory of Craft and Aesthetic Expression. U. North Carolina Press.
This is purely from the hip, seeing where it goes kind of stuff. You have been warned.
So, I’ve been a little obsessed with the camera market lately, and although I am usually against this sort of thing, I’ve started reading/watching reviews and commentary about the recent release. A shocking amount of the rhetoric involved seems to be a bit like this:
Now, I have no desire to engage in a debate about which brand is better; what I am interested in is the line of thinking that leads to this type of debate. Put simply – there is a built-in assumption that it is important to have “the best camera,” and that this is reflective of “the best photographer.” This is partially technological determinism, and more specifically a subset that, for lack of a better term, I would call technological fetishism. I’ll focus on the former mostly, because in this case it is more appropriate to a Marxist interpretations, but will try to tease out the latter as a special case afterward.
One of the most notable features of both of these cameras is that they both his around the $3,000 point. This seems to denote a level of importance that requires discourse – if someone is to put down that much money, it should be warranted by a certain amount of value. Correlated with that price is a notion of “professional” – both are listed as professional cameras. Partly, this is an aspect of the denotation of professional – one who gets paid for something. If one gets paid for something, that offsets the expense. If the ROI crunches in the black, then the investment is justified. However, the connotation of the term “professional” is someone who is proficient at something to the extent that they deserve money. Therefor, there is a tie between money and aptitude – this shouldn’t be tremendously surprising. What is more interesting, and where technological determinism comes in, is the association that having a professional camera will make someone a professional, and therefor
will somehow increase aptitude. Add to this an aspect of scarcity (due to the speed of production) and suddenly the camera not only increases proficiency, but also makes the owners part of an exclusive group whose proficiency has been increased in this way. Now, this is not to take away from any of the features that a camera has and how those may be valuable in certain circumstances, but a large amount of the rhetoric seems to be based around generalizations that are rooted in the social-technical-economical mentality described above.
Now is when I will request that the audience dawn their foil hats. Technological fetishism (again, poorly thought out wording) would be the move from it merely being a mistaken removal of agency to something that actually manifests as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This seems easiest to detail in a creative sphere, although it could be argued in other situations as well. If we are to accept the idea that art is somehow related to emotion (I concede this in some circumstances, but do not exclude non-emotional content from art) then confidence would play a role in that form of expression. If one were to take the technologically deterministic perspective that the camera does make them a professional, then by having it they would be granted the confidence of a professional. When it comes to societal reception of their work, the audience may look at it differently knowing their ownership of professional equipment. If the artifact itself is abstracted away, then the work conceptually is improved. Now, there are numerous counter-examples to this – people who buy an expensive camera and continue to take crumby pictures (I am not too ashamed to say that I fall into this trap), but there is definitely a mental and emotional state brought on by new technology, and it can have an effect on output. What’s more, while I feel like the other theories account for aspects of this, none of them covers it holistically.
I’m still not certain that this is a distinct flavor of technological determinism or even just propaganda to sell cameras, but it seems like there is something there, albeit ill-defined at this point. As an addendum, this seems to be part of the divide on perception of the pen tool (which I will admit to over-criticizing, along with Adobe). However, I would point to the kind of mentality described above being an aspect of the divide on that tool – a $500 professional design program that many who do not have it would believe could produce a better designer. The divide on the pen tool (which comes from my observations when hiring a graphic designer) stems from the same technological determinism that states that a better camera will produce better photos. Again, what’s interesting is that the tool’s capabilities are built into a professional program, and that those capabilities are then tied to be a professional – meaning that some people may learn to use them to reach a goal, but that others may learn them to increase their professional tool-set, and then define goals off of that set. This again brushes with Marxism in that the professional needs an edge over the amateur (think proletariate and bourgeois fashion) and so Adobe continues to add more features to, extending the analogy, stay one step ahead of the Joneses.
So, this is a rough correlation, and I present it only as such, but this seems like it could be a possible direction (or proto-direction) for sequence analysis in Interaction Design – experience maps.
It’s not a perfect example, but it does help to illustrate the idea of a standard unit of analysis comparable to the scene (unit of time) in film sequence analysis as well as a means of lending relevance to those units as a whole.
An experience map is made up of “touch-points,” a term used in service design. What makes touch-points compelling as a way of analyzing an experience is that while they can be tied to chronology or hierarchy, they are not not inherently tied to either of those ideas. However, they can help to serve a similar purpose to the discrete units of time in sequence analysis – they are used to find larger patterns and places that those patterns break down.
What is also interesting about this approach is the “map” nature of the experience map. Since the interactions are dynamic and often iterative (how many clicks does it take to get the Shopping Cart of an e-commerce site) it would follow that the method of representing the analysis would take a different form. While Chris’ example is time-based (on the horizontal axis) it does have iterative elements in the initial phase. Here is another example, in the form of a mind map, that disregards chronology altogether and presents more of an ecosystem.
Now, to make this useful a more codified definition of what a “touch-point” is in terms of interaction design would be necessary as would a careful look at how this analysis of a service could transition to a more specific, single interaction or artifact.
Unfortunately applying this is a little beyond the scope of what I am capable of doing in a blog post, but the takeaway would be that “touch-points,” in an abstract sense, could be useful as a means of approaching a definition of the unit of analysis for interaction and that visualizations (ie a map) would be necessary as a means of representing findings.
UPDATE 09.01.11: This image was included in the September + October 2011 issue of Interactions p. 64
This project represents the initial ideation for a forthcoming design: a means of employing technology to find a humane, sustainable, and effective means of pest control. While the ultimate goal is to produce a design that answers to the previous statement, the focus of this project (and blog post) is on the means of ideation employed here. There will be more on the pest control concept as it becomes more concrete.
Sketching and Prototyping: where to define the threshold
For designers, sketching occupies a unique and important space. It is the taking of ideas that are in the designer’s mind and giving them physical form as a means to see the design as something external, and reflect upon it as such. It is tied to the idea of ideation: creating a large number of rapid concepts to inform more final designs. Alternately, prototyping is more tied to the idea of presenting an idea to the public: having something that can be tested and used to iterate on the design.
Why Pictures as Ideation
The process of generating ideas is defined by its low-fidelity nature and the speed at which it can generate ideas. The low-fidelity of the representation is actually an asset, helping the designer to gain insight about what elements are important and making it easier to critique the core of the design rather than getting caught up in the details. This is the usual point at which photography suffers as a means of ideation. While modern digital cameras and photo editing software makes it possible compose and edit photos quickly, the problem is that it still is a photographic representation, with a lot of detail.
However, this gets at the main reason why photography should be used: while it does present more detail, the composition and layout can be just as low-fidelity as a sketch. Since building full models takes time that is usually dedicated more toward prototyping, the way that an idea can be made can be something as simple as Dadaist-esque collage. The final result isn’t meant to look photo-realistic, but it does give a bit more and different information and possibility for insight. It operates a bit off of the same principle as a mood board, just a little more specific and pointed than the broad inspirational strokes associated with that medium.
This is not to say that using images should be the only means of ideation and sketching. Nothing can ever replace the napkin sketch as a means to quickly and easily document an idea outside of the designers mind. However, as an additional tool, it can assist in the process of ideation.
What is a Story?
Traditionally, a story involves a setting, characters, items, and events that are tied together to make a plot. This plot forms a narrative structure that involves a description of setting, some sort of conflict, and a resolution. A story is also inherently noninclusive: it is a simplified representation of reality for the purpose of creating a logical pattern.
Stories have a particular value to people. Stories have three main facets: they explain, they inform, and they entertain. They are designed such that they can convey information, emotion, and possibly a moral. Yet, the term “story” also contrasts with the idea of reality. The connotation of the word “story” has ties to fiction, or at the very least a partial representation of reality. This makes sense, given the aforementioned noninclusive nature of stories. So, a story is a reduced representation of reality, for the purposes of logical cogency, that overtly states its own lack of accuracy when it comes to reality.
Stories in a Broader Light
Complex situations are difficult to understand and become impossible to understand when the number of variables involved reach a certain point. This is what separates the functioning represented by Euclidean geometry from Chaos theory. While the former lacks a certain amount of detail that is presented in the latter, it is beneficial in the fact that is easier (or more possible) to manipulate. It is, in a way, a story of the world that allows people to somewhat understand it and interact with it in a way that seems rational. This adds yet another facet to stories: stories that are functional. They are distinct from stories that explain in that they explain something imperfectly, but they are useful and so they persist.
These functional stories get to the heart of how this idea of stories relate to design. This kind of functional story is very similar to a mental model. A mental model is a simplified representation of reality that makes a concept easier to understand and manipulate. It can also be a black box in that it becomes invisible to the person who is using it. The same is true of these stories: they can be told to the point where they cease to be seen as stories. What differentiates this idea of mental models are the other facets of stories. In this sense, a mental model is a subset of story that fits the facets of functionality or explanation. The remaining two aspects of stories: information and entertainment are where stories become distinct.
Stories that Inform and Stories that Entertain
These two types of stories can be illustrated by information visualization and third wave HCI. Information Visualization uses this kind of story-telling to take raw data and make it useful. By visualizing data in a certain way, it allows people to recognize patterns that can then form a logical structure. This logical structure forms a story which can then become functional model.
As far as entertainment, the third wave of HCI’s focus on emotion illustrates this facet of story-telling. While previous waves of HCI focused on mental models and the functioning of interfaces in quantifiable ways represents the functional and informative facets of stories, the introduction of emotional aspects recognizes the importance of the entertainment aspect. While entertainment generally carries the connotation of activities that make people happy, this also takes into account other emotions that serve purposes beyond the practical. It can also include logical pursuits that bring about pleasure beyond practical outcomes.
Implications for Design
Stories as frames
When confronting design problems, issues that Rittel and Webber would describe as wicked problems, it is important to frame the problem space in a way that leads to a solution. This frame is, itself, a story. The selection of elements in the problem space is done in such a way that the beginnings of a narrative logic take hold. This maps to the beginning part of the story where setting is described. Just as some stories may begin with minimal description of setting, this act of framing also does not have to be complete initially, rather it can be put together as needed, although it is necessary for narrative cohesion.
Recognition of All Elements
This is nothing new to interaction and user experience designers, but all of the facets of story telling must be considered for it to function. There are certain aspects that must be present in a story to make it explain, inform, entertain, and function. Only by considering how these aspects work together can the appropriate narrative structure be formed.
Designer as Storyteller
Part of the role of the designer is to see the stories that are told by others and search for the details that are left out by those stories and how they might change the outcome of the plot. Pursuing the logic of the narrative, the designer can then write a new story which more appropriately maps to the situation. The designs themselves, then, become stories. As is the case in oral-traditions, these stories are then taken up by the users of the design and can be changed. If the designer originates the story, then the people who interact with the design continue to tell it. The designer must imbue the story with it’s plot, or core. If the story is well formed, then it will have logical cohesion to the plot, and changes made in the future will still refer back to this.
The Importance of Narrative Logic
The ultimate implication that the use of the story metaphor has for design is that stories require a logical cohesion that forms them into an actual story as opposed to a loosely strung chain of events. When the designer incorporates external elements into a pre-existing story, the resultant narrative must still maintain the same logical cohesion present previously. If this logic is broken, or any part of the story does not serve this logic, it will result in a bad story, and thus a bad design.
For this project I worked with Ed Rice who, beyond being an incredibly fun person, is a designer with an acute awareness of social issues and social architecture. We focused on a troubling arterial intersection where cars pull far beyond the point labeled “Stop Here on Red” and cause conflicts with the turning radii of buses that are turning from a perpendicular position. The presentation focused on photography as a rich representation of the problem as well as a means of ideating about the possibility of solving the problem.
Update: http://blog.ronconcocacola.com/2011/06/02/nyc-goes-three-ways.aspx – a great way of visualizing the problem and a use of video as information visualization. What’s even more interesting is the responses in the comments. Raises some interesting questions about perceived danger, actual danger, and compfortability.